Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” written on the back of an envelope when the poet was only seventeen, looks back to the nineteenth century to echo the celebratory exuberance of Walt Whitman. The poem’s voice is reminiscent of the all-encompassing first-person “I” of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in that it refers to both personal and collective experience. The speaker’s “I” spans time and space:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
The poem alludes to both the nightmare of slavery and the celebratory aspects of the Black experience, containing only passing references to both forced migration and euphoria:
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans. . . .
These lines contain mostly positive, comforting images, even if what is behind them is not. The speaker never directly describes the experience of being pulled from “sleep” in a restful hut to face the horror of diaspora and enslavement on another continent—this event is only alluded to. Likewise, the Israelite experience of slavery and deliverance in Egypt, often a model for Black hopes of freedom, hovers behind the seemingly benign and pleasant images of the Nile and the pyramids. Finally, the imagery of “singing,” “the Mississippi,” “Abe Lincoln,” and “New Orleans,” while never directly mentioning the misery of slavery, does reference slavery indirectly in alluding to New Orleans slave markets, enslaved people singing mournfully en route to cotton or sugar plantations, and Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of enslaved people.
Because these allusions operate below the surface, the speaker of this poem does not condemn racism or injustice outright but focuses on celebrating Black history and culture instead. In doing so, the speaker functions as a representation of all African-descended people and the rich history of their joys, sorrows, struggles, and achievements from the dawn of time onward. His declarations again recall those of Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself”:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. . . . (Whitman)
By the mid-1920s, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, Hughes’s poetry had turned more explicitly to condemning injustice. In “Let America Be America Again,” another poem with a Whitman-like title and scope, Hughes openly points toward the problems of not only the Black experience but also that of all oppressed Americans:
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek. . . .
This speaker, like Whitman’s in “Song of Myself” and Hughes’s in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” identifies with more than one single self, but this time he does so in order to call explicit attention to injustice and to express solidarity with other marginalized groups. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” injustice is hinted at, but the tone remains largely positive. Today, a century after it was first published in the NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis, this brief poem is considered Hughes’s most famous work and the piece that sent its author on his way to becoming a chief figure of the Harlem Renaissance.